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Superconversations Day 2: Kate Steinmann responds to Martha Rosler, "The Art of Cooking: A Dialogue Between Julia Child & Craig Claiborne"

Steinmann’s article makes some really interesting points, raising questions that are both timely and nostalgic. I liked thinking about the different connections and networks evoked by it.

As I read excerpts of Rosler’s “The Art of Cooking”, I couldn’t help thinking of both the famous 18th Century Spectator essays of Addison on Taste and the 21st Century film “Julie & Julia” that chronicled Julie Powell’s memoir on cooking the recipes in Julia Child’s famous cookbook. That the reader must measure up to the author (Addison’s assertion), instead of the other way around, seems an almost archaic concept in our world, one so quickly moderated by hashtagged snark and the guerrilla jabs of keyboard warriors whose criticisms often exceed their wit. And, yet, the aforementioned film features a particularly contemporary heroine who seeks to gain validation through a linking of herself to an established, traditional notion of taste by duplicating, rather than re-imagining, a kind of taste that has been historically valued. Both of these ideas come to mind as I read a dialogue between a fictional Child and Claiborne, hashing out ideas of taste and taste. The dual concept of “taste” and its relationship to privilege is inescapable, in the text itself and in the modern world. Does the notion of “progress” and change fit into the discussion?

There’s something interesting about the ways in which ideas about cuisine have the power to uplift, but also to ground, and it isn’t surprising that ideas about high and low art are pushed up against ideas about vulgarity and elitism in Rosler’s text, making even more resonant the Beauty and the Beast image among the Rihanna pizza and omelette memes mentioned by Steinmann. In some ways, the Rosler text brings up the idea of where the woman “rightly” belongs in relation to labor, and to art, as well. Does the woman “belong” in the kitchen? If she is in the kitchen, can we still call the thing she is doing art, or has it become a kind of kitsch? Can she choose to occupy the domestic sphere without relinquishing power? How does that now relate to our attitudes about watching contemporary shows on cookery and cuisine? Can we call the thing art if we talk about weird foods among men, while we consider the thing a domestic shortcut when we talk about entertaining our families at the dinner table among women? Do we value the artistic merit of Gordon Ramsey and Rachel Ray equally, and how much does gender factor into the value we ascribe? Does Belle only get to have the power of being with a Prince instead of a Beast once she has mastered the domestic sphere of talking utensils and home goods? Does her love of libraries enter into the conversation with the same valence? I don’t think it really matters if we answer the questions. I don’t think that artistry is at the heart of the discussion around Julia Child’s appeal, nor is it at the heart of the discussion about Rihanna’s wardrobe, or even that of the author whose work is being consumed by Addison’s imagined reader in order to gain or become worthy of some value. I do think all of these have something to do with how we think about taste. Steinman’s observations invite us to investigate the connection between taste, value, power, and privilege – as well as the expense of such ideas. I agree with the distinctions that she has made, here, as she says, “Rosler’s own work does the opposite, of course, as a political engagement that addresses not the magical power of the artist as creator but the conditions of power that affect all of us”. The politics of the domestic space and those of the artistic space are both called into question, especially as we think about the feminization of labor. The power to determine what “Taste” is and isn’t, what has value and what doesn’t, hasn’t really been feminized alongside the labor.

I’m interested to see how our ideas about cuisine, capital, gender, labor and art today intersect with those of Rosler’s arguments, something which the e-flux publication of the text in the context of world futures asks us to consider. And, I have to admit that I’m really enjoying the direction that the conversation seems to be taking in the comments!

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Cooking as "giving birth,” cook as sorcerer, mother as criminal alchemist—fantastic images.

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The link to environmental shifts is a significant one Rebekah. There seems an unspoken rush at almost all levels of the constantly metastasizing food fetish that anticipates future scarcity- almost as a lark to devour all of the canaries before they can even get to the coal mine.

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Great points, Percepticon. Thanks for directing me to Hester’s incisive questions. Predefined gender categories certainly do inform the notion of the "feminization of work”; I tend to think of this mostly as a useful rhetorical strategy, although it’s clearly important to be conscious of the constructed nature of such categories. The critique of work itself is hugely relevant, I agree. So too, I think, is Federici’s point that in a hypothetical new and improved future there would still be plenty of work; thus such a future would be one not of no more work (handy, work-saving robots notwithstanding) but (ideally anyway) of profound transformations in our relationship to work.

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UBI and artificial wombs FTW. For the semiotics of the crib, perhaps a Kleinian abecedarium? A is for Attack . . . D is for Death drive . . . E is for Envy . . . G is for Good object . . . I is for Introjection . . . T is for Toilet breast. . . .

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I’m enjoying this discussion on feminism and labor, but I think we may have overlooked a major component of this being Supercommunity’s first text (though I think the Met Gala reference is nearly as significant and potentially in the same direction).

I just finished reading Kevin McGarry’s review of “All the World’s Futures” at the 56th Venice Biennale, which e-flux sent to me roughly 12 hours after they sent me Rosler’s piece for Day 2 of the project (is that what we are calling it…a project? Is it even the right pronoun?). You can read the review here: http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/all-the-worlds-futures/.

McGarry says, “And while Venice is the most expansive international exhibition in the world of contemporary art, this year it is dwarfed by an analogously outmoded, nation-obsessed spectacle taking place only two hours west: Expo Milano 2015.” The theme of Expo Milano is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and as McGarry mentions, “It’s all about food, its culinary varieties and geopolitical complexities.” From what McGarry says, “Consumption is in the air” from Milan to Giardini. The Biennale itself seems to even respond to this absurd context with the inclusion of Nauman’s Eat/Death, 1972 in the Arsenale, as McGarry mentions. I’m not sure if this is a cute nod to the pairing of spectacular global art events, or a sincere gesture of confrontation.

It seems that @Kate_Kate 's analysis of Rosler’s work may be most fitting to begin to discuss the importance of this piece in the context of Supercommunity and the Biennale.

Rosler’s piece as the first text released for/to the Supercommunity seems to suggest that e-flux is foregrounding “the conditions of power that affect all of us,” directly referencing the non-stop global displays of capital both inside and outside of the artworld.

Perhaps Rosler’s piece / e-flux’s gesture is a solution to the issue of art’s inadequacy that @DADABASE mentioned in the opening conversation:

So although we may want to discuss feminism, labor, and art; I’m also interested in the Rosler piece as participation in the much broader discussion of art’s collusion with global capital. And this point is only revealed when we examine the recontextualization / curation of this 40 year old artwork.

Smart move Supercommunity!

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Saba Razvi, thank you for your very thoughtful and suggestive commentary. Your point that the power to determine taste and value hasn’t been feminized alongside the labor is brilliant, and I do think that our perceptions of what counts as “art” all too often tend to be strongly influenced by the gender identities involved. I also love this: "That the reader must measure up to the author (Addison’s assertion), instead of the other way around, seems an almost archaic concept in our world, one so quickly moderated by hashtagged snark and the guerrilla jabs of keyboard warriors whose criticisms often exceed their wit.” An eye-opening observation (not to mention wonderful phrasing). Julie Powell’s quest indeed emerges as an oddly old-fashioned one.

I don’t know Addison but am now eager to look for this work…

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This discussion also calls to mind the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev–a direct clash of political beliefs on the surface, but, in my opinion, actually reveals the intensity with which capitalism transforms expectations of and creates new sets of demands for the labor of individuals, communities, and society.

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Rebekah Sheldon, thank you for pointing out the ur-question overshadowing everything else in this discussion. You are right that its special urgency now does distinguish our moment from the 1970s, even if ecocide was already very much on people’s minds then. I very much appreciate your necessary extension of this problem beyond the human to include animals and the ecosphere; “the labor of ecological actants” is a thought-provoking way of putting it.

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I’m curious though why Tom is so completely dismissive of the reading of Marx at the Biennale? I mean, we would probably celebrate alternative / pop musicians for simply mentioning Marx’s name in a song that became popular, or for thematics that don’t mention him at all but express the analysis. Is it really less subversive than for example, Pet Shop Boys invoking Marx in their recent pop songs, or other comparables? What is the proper space for the collective presentation or reading of Marx? If we say universities, etc., aren’t there similar problems? One of Ranciere’s assertions in The Nights of Labor was the importance of a passage in a locksmith’s diary in which he said something like “Yes, I know my trade very well and am proud of what I do, which is crucial and an actually needed thing in the world. But, all the same, I would much have preferred to have been a painter”. Is it never right to suggest that the reverse is also the case?

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I also want to extend the conversation about the feminization of labor to a conversation about how class, race, gender and labor intersect. I think it might be useful to think about the relationship between the ‘art of cooking’ and the ‘art of service.’ In looking at the role that women have played in the service industry (I am specifically looking at the waitress as a trope for female stereotypes), I think it is important to talk about the emotional labor that is demanded of all people working in the service industry. To quote Nina Power in her essay, “Don’t Smile, Organize”: “the structure of work remains the same: at the end of the day, your work is not your own, your body is hired out to generate profits for someone else, your smile does not belong to you. The practice of tipping reveals, in quite a specific way, the added value that manner and affect can bring; you may keep those tips you make from being a friendly, or flirty, waiter or waitress, a helpful shop-assistant, an engaging and witty hairdresser, but they may simply be used to make up your basic income. You are your job, plus your personality.”

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There is one crucial issue which seems to have gone unnoticed in this conversation: the biopolitics of food, which underlies the choice of Rosler’s The Art of Cooking as a statement. Beyond the semiotics of gourmet food as a symbolic system for representing social status (a system which has undergone many transformations but has always preserved its signifying power), is the reality of bare food, which nurtures and maintains bare life. One could understand life as the full experience of bios (a way of life) and zoe (the universal act of living), while Agamben’s idea of bare life is a life which is entirely reduced to zoe. Roslen’s The Art of Cooking consider food as bare food - that which no longer engages with the origins, quality and processes that configure the how of food, in itself either alive or a subsidy of life, and its unfoldings and becomings in the world. Food is here taken for granted, the privilege of access to food comes as a given which does not need to be acknowledged or taken into consideration. Bare food is the mediated experience of food which is managed, regulated and controled by biopower. In a world in which food is hyperreal - genetically manipulated, distorted, desecrated; and where lack of access to clean water is on the verge of becoming a dystopian nightmare, the seriousness and urgency of discussing the bios and zoe of food is paramount.

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I would like to see a statement linking the exclusion (let’s not just call it underrepresentation, that seems like a euphemism and implies an ideal balance) of non-cis-men to the inadequacy of contemporary art. Often such statistical citations—let’s say in the affirmative action debates in the US—suggest that the problem is the failure to achieve balance. Balance is not the goal. A more robust field is. Barriers to entry reduce the accountability of the field and prevent revision.

A digression. I tend to think more about the exclusion of non-white artists but I think the dynamics and effects of exclusion are generalizable. Institutions that are committed to recovering the creative work of non-white artists have, like you, had to turn away from strictly contemporary art practices to fulfill those missions: specifically to “commercial” work (as if gallery work is not commercial—it’s simply a different ownership structure, based on labor rather than commodities—another interesting discussion I hope we can have). I think of El Museo del Barrio’s exhibition of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa’s work, or of Museum of Chinese in America’s exhibition of Tyrus Wong’s work (best known as the lead creative of Bambi). Now we have plenty of cinematographic and animation work in contemporary art—it would be easy to think of these artists as literally ahead of their time, and yet the vicious circle of legitimation excludes their work; it’s only art if it’s thought of as art, and it’s only thought of as art if it’s art. A specious, circular claim like that is just the kind of vague grounds by which prejudices shore themselves up.

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It seems that Tom believes it is being done either in bad faith (nostalgia) or without regard for impact (farce). I think that neither of these criticisms hold water, being unelaborated. I suspect that the gesture of reading Marx in a Biennial known for soft-left rhetoric is too simple and legible. I think it is worth responding to (I am writing here after all) precisely because it is simple and legible. It is very literal-minded. It cuts out the intermediary, which is art that obliquely refers to Marx. I think his “at best… at worst” claims unhappily draw their strength (which I am moved by too—and rhetorical strength is not necessarily intended, but ingrained into phrases) from a rhetoric that prizes effortlessness and punishes aspiration. Jason’s citation is on point:

This desire to be something other than what one is (in this case, a painter rather than a locksmith), I think that reading Marx bespeaks that desire (wishing to talk about Marx rather than art). Claiborne speaks of the goal of the high chef as “perfection… the goal of classic French cooking… this cuisine is more demanding and more precise than any other.” At the risk of making an irresponsible claim, I would say that Tom’s dismissal is a matter of personal distaste—I meant “taste” here in the weak sense of the word.

Really searching for perfection, by becoming more than or other than what one is, would require a constant re-evaluation of what one’s goals are; otherwise it’s dogmatism, as Claiborne’s next sentence “It has its own logic, its own elaborate structure, its own techniques, procedures, and caveats,” hints. Taste as something that’s merely inherited is insufficient, a mere product of one’s upbringing. This is what I mean by taste in the weak sense.

In the strong sense: developing a taste isn’t just following things, it’s also experimenting constantly and being surprised by one’s own capacities and inclinations, while also thoughtfully and committedly pursuing what’s on the tip of one’s tongue.

@KRZ Sounds like it could be a great contribution to the discussion. Would you please elaborate on the Kitchen Debates, for those of us who have not read or seen them? What happened in them and how do they transform our expectations and demands for labor?

I looked it up briefly, and was struck by this rejoinder of Khruschev’s to the wealth of household technology shown by Nixon: "Khrushchev: “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life.” Keti Chukhrov has an incisive and general discussion of the status of the object in the USSR as compared to the USA. If I remember correctly: in capitalism, the object (as fetish) is always enchanted: it offers an experience that it can never fully deliver. The role of conceptual art is to demystify this desire, and show that: oh, it is in fact simply just that literal object. In contrast, in socialism, the object (as utility) is always literal: it serves exactly its function, it is almost an ideal object, which is why everything is so shabby, since it merely suffices. The role of conceptual art here is to introduce sublimity and potentiality into the object.

Thank you for bringing this up, and to @Kate_Kate and @saba_razvi for bringing up the celebrity chef. I would like to see more of a discussion of food, rather than [or perhaps as well as] Joseph Addison and Melanie Klein. I think that we should apply our intelligences not just textually but also to aesthetic experiences like food.

This is perhaps a good time to talk about socialist food.

Or at least, the food of insitutional liberalism, capitalism’s mimetic response to socialism. Of course it would have an outer-space ring to it. The Mars bar replaces depth of flavor with a series of surfaces: unlike “the French [who] seem to look for the hidden flavor locked within a piece of meat in much the same way a sculptor looks for the shape within a block of wood or marble.” If the candy bar leverages new technologies of packaging food, then of course having the candy itself packaged in melted chocolate is brilliant.

Rosler positions Claiborne as the doyen of classic, cosmopolitan cuisine—perfection for the few—and Childs as the advocate for rural, working-class ingenuity—quite good for the many—but what this leaves off the table is the possibility of perfection for the many.

Exo and Soylent represent faithful inheritors of the tradition of modernist confection, of the Mars brothers (who haven’t made anything interesting in nearly a century)—setting aside Hershey, since their achievement was largely administrative rather than technical, in the same way that McDonald’s is successful as a popularizer of franchising rather than a food store. Julia Child asks: “Would one accept superbly prepared insects as food art if we abhorred insects or loathed the very idea of eating them?” A lot is at stake in the question, and I think the only responsible answer is yes. Otherwise, the culinary arts are powerless in facilitating our drive, orienting our desires to be more and other and better than we are.

One final note. @rmorais I am sympathetic to your discussion of foodways and your attempt to distinguish between a bios and zoe of food (perhaps between cuisine and nutrition?) but am wary of your implicit recourse to a simple idea of nature as a response. Yes, certain corporate and state regimes are actively thinning out the quality and quantity of lives of some groups. However, protesting GMOs is not an adequate response to Monsanto. Genetic modification of plants is actually a logical extension of other processes of manipulating dead things like plants or animals into food, like timing, cooking, steaming, boiling, cutting, seasoning, cultivating, breeding—it is just another technology and there is no good philosophical or scientific reasoning [anti-GMO like anti-vaccination is the ugly, anti-scientific side of the contemporary left and an unfortunate hangover of 1960s cultural environmentalism] to draw the line at GMOs rather than at factory farming rather than at nomadic pastoralism rather than at foraging.

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hi @dxb, i don’t think plants and animals are dead things and i do believe that the line must be drawn somewhere - where exactly depends on the limits of one’s aesthetic and ethical sensibility. i don’t think that agamben’s revision of biopolitics (which i’m applying to food here) presupposes a “simple idea of nature”. if you read any of my many texts on nanotechnology, you will find that my views of nature are not simple in any way. to say that anti-GMO is anti-scientific is a very shallow argument. there is no scientific consensus about GMO. furthermore, as someone from brazil who was raised on a farm and has actually seen the impact of GMO crops (they are resistant to insects and completely alter the ecosystem in which they are planted), i understand that their effect is much wider than simply asking this human-centred, narcissistic question of “are they safe to be eaten?”. they are causing abnormal changes and mutations in our ecosystem and i’ve experienced them first hand. so yes, i am anti-GMO.

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“There is another dimension to culinary art which has less to do with humans, that of demonic alchemy of material animation.” Yes, this and the Negarestani’s wonderful notes you quoted bought to mind Isak Dinsen’s 1950 gothic short novella “Babette’s Feast”. Am re-reading this story presently
in light of this dimension and others that have been bought up in the discussion. https://www2.bc.edu/~taylor/babette.html.

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I’m not dismissive of reading Marx, just the representative gesture, as if it is some shibboleth or charm to ward away the forces of global capitalism.The aestheticized context of it is also a problem. Isn’t UBS sponsoring the Biennale to a large extent, and doesn’t this subsume the gesture?

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“Chipotle”, even the name of this quick foods restaurant is an expropriation of the Mexican word adopted from the Nahuatl word for the smoked chili: Chipotle, the dropping of the medial “L”, suited better to American tastes for “Tex-Mex”. Imperialist cuisine, quick cooked to suit the hurried lives of the urbanist bourgeoisie devouring (consuming) a food that has lost its mestizo flavor, all the while in a Žižekian turn assuages it’s privileged sense of corporate guilt through building compassion into every bite: “We do it for farmers” gladly proclaimed. We buy indulgences through “corporate responsibility” statements. A penance in every penny spent.

Yet, how about the farmworkers, the most exploited agricultural laborers who enjoy a least protected status, sweating in toil in the fields , under blazing sun to provide the farm fresh and responsibly sourced cuisine in such high demand to the middle class palate? Whose toil goes unnoticed in the technological logistics of sourcing foods to the table for every expropriated cuisine.

“General Tso?”, one quizzically asks of the origins of this new foul (fowl), this strangely spiced chicken dish unknown to the tastes of China before the return of Chinese chefs from the diaspora.

How is the paneer, dear? We must ask if we are creating a new and sterilized global culture of quick cuisine in which the spices and textures of the global South and Asia are expropriated to serve the consumer tastes and middle brow fetish for the new, the spicy (but not too…), the exotic.

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I think that Jason’s question (and his reversal of Ranciere) may be something like, shouldn’t the staff of UBS be reading Marx (if they aren’t already)?

Food seems to be a particularly easy way to discuss class, since it leads intuitively to taste. I think the original, authentic cuisine you’re describing is even more of a fantasy than the not too spicy hybrids. I don’t understand why one would consider, for example, the fusion of court food and regional, Shandong cuisine into contemporary Northern Chinese food a good hybrid, but the fusion of Canton/Fujian food with American preferences for the sweet and spicy as a bad hybrid. I can’t see a way for your critique of the middlebrow to be more than ultimately a defense of the highbrow. That is, Claiborne’s side, the side of the authentic and classic and canonical [South Asian rather than French], rather than Childs’ [experimental products of ways of life in regions, which includes both rural Kolkata and Bengali Harlem]. How is General Tso’s not mestizo? Not that it’s good, or that I’ve tried it.

Obviously, the ownership structures may be problematic. A cuisine that’s the product of one particular group’s R&D but not under patent protection is taken and then profited off of by someone else; but that’s not really a problem with the food itself, that’s confusing symptoms and sicknesses. Like in your example of Chipotle: the problem is the company, not the recipes.

Back to an earlier point of yours, @Kate_Kate . One of the major functions of cultural workers is to launder/usher new money into old wealth. True in 1900 New York, 1800 London, 1700 Amsterdam, 1600 Antwerp, 1500 Venice… and [2000 Beijing][1] But I want to argue in defense of etiquette and manners. One line of critique holds that it’s nothing but class markers, and I think this line of thought is popular in contemporary art circles because of the distrust of conventions. But I think that if you accept that everything’s constructed not as a traumatic truth, but as an invitation to participate, then conventions (and etiquette) become very important.

I recently read Mou Zongsan’s Nineteen Lectures. He has an account of the rise of the pre-Qin philosophers which forms [the basis for his New Confucian defense of manners][2], against the line of reasoning “everything is constructed and hence meaningless and so don’t do it” as it appears in certain strains of existentialism (and for him, I imagine, post-structuralism would be in there too) and Buddhism and Daoism. Broadly, society was regulated in the pre-Qin period by ritual (really, etiquette) for the upper class, and punishment for the lower class. All formulas and rites aside, the basic proposition of manners is to treat others like one is treated (you bow back, you shake back; it’s reciprocal and equal); but the forms of this norm and the principle itself become decoupled in the 200s BC, and he calls this the “exhaustion of the Zhou rites.” The philosophical schools arise as a response to this crisis of manners; Daoism is a critique of conventions that seeks to dispense with them altogether, Confucianism recuperates it by articulating its ethical grounds, Legalism replaces manners with punishment altogether, in a Kissingerian realist way… I’ve wandered a little, but I mean to say that there are fruitful ways to think about behavioral norms. I don’t think it is silly to decouple manners from class, which is a specious association made by the upper class in any case: of course people with less privilege are usually more sensitive to manners and the expression of respect. We act by them, anyways, certainly in a context as straitened as the Biennial. Why not make them better? Can I also just say that one of the best and most activist books in the very particular context of the art world that I know of is about [etiquette?][3]

@rmorais Thank you! I am reading “Sky High, Skin Deep” right now and am sorry to have made assumptions. I understand that genetic manipulations are altering ecosystems in uncontrolled and reckless ways, but I would say that the ethical failure here is of regulation by state authorities; I would not problematize the process of GM itself as being unnatural, but say that we should manipulate more intelligently.
[1]: http://www.institutesarita.com/en/
[2]: http://nineteenlects.com/lect.php?lect=3
[3]: http://www.papermonument.com/i-like-your-work/

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That’s right - and the chilpotle chili is a mestizo element found in the shops frequented by the underclass of Mexican laborers here in the western US, a syndrome of alienation and non-acceptance by the dominator class that imports these workers, often illegally, to keep the cost of farm production low. Thus I contend that “Chipotle” is a political statement and a disenfranchisement of the mestizo culture of origin through “compassionate corporate” expropriation of the people’s food and its castration via the Nahuatl middle “L” .

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